27 September 2023

Computing wonders: The $600M machine to manage a nuclear stockpile

Start the conversation

Antonio Villas-Boas* reports on the United State’s new super computer that can process a quintillion calculations – that’s a million trillion calculations – in one second…

The United States’ nuclear stockpile is to be managed by a $US600 million supercomputer called “El Capitan” that’s more powerful than the top 100 supercomputers in the world today combined.

Not to be confused with Apple’s “El Capitan” version of its macOS computer operating system, the supercomputer will be built by American supercomputer manufacturer Cray, which announced the contract with the Department of Energy (DoE) and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) last Tuesday.

“El Capitan will allow our scientists and engineers to get answers to critical questions about the nuclear stockpile faster and more accurately than ever before, improving our efficiency and productivity, and enhancing our ability to reach our mission and national security goals,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) lab director Bill Goldstein said in a statement.

One of El Capitan’s jobs will be to model 3D simulations of how nuclear weapons age, for which researchers have no nuclear test data, Cray said in its press release.

“El Capitan’s advanced capabilities for modelling, simulation, and artificial intelligence will help push America’s competitive edge in energy and national security, allow us to ask tougher questions, solve greater challenges and develop better solutions for generations to come,” said US Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

Lisa E. Gordon-Hagerty, DoE Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA administrator, said in a statement that the NNSA is modernising its systems to “face 21st-century threats.”

El Capitan is an “exascale” class computer, which is to say it can compute over a quintillion calculations per second. A quintillion has 18 zeroes, and looks like this: 1,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Specifically, El Capitan can compute 1.5 quintillion calculations per second, which can be translated to 1.5 exahertz.

By comparison, a high-end consumer computer processor can calculate 5 billion calculations per second, or 5 gigahertz per second.

A billion has “only” nine zeroes compared to the 18 in a quintillion.

El Capitan will be the DoE’s third exascale-class supercomputer, and will join Argonne National Laboratory’s “Aurora” and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s “Frontier” systems. All three systems were built by Cray.

El Capitan is expected to be delivered to the DoE and NSSA in 2o22.

* Antonio Villas-Boas writes for Business Insider. He tweets @tonyvstech

This article first appeared at www.businessinsider.com.au

Start the conversation

Be among the first to get all the Public Sector and Defence news and views that matter.

Subscribe now and receive the latest news, delivered free to your inbox.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.